Great Destination Streams
South Holston River, Tennessee
by James Marsh
Copyright 2013 James Marsh
November 2013 Issue
James Reid's Shop
How many places do you know of that you can fish 365 days a
year and have an excellent chance to catch trout? One such
place is the South Holston River, a tailwater located in
northeastern Tennessee near Bristol. Although it is stocked
with rainbow trout by the (TWRA) Tennessee Wildlife Agency, it
has a substantial population of wild, stream-bred brown trout.
Brown trout are not stocked and as an added feature, many, if
not most of the rainbows, holdover from year to year. The
bottom discharge of water keeps the stream cool even during
the hot summer months. In my opinion, it is the best tailwater in
the Southeast and one of the best tailwaters in the Eastern
The South Holston can be waded when they are not generating
power and fished from a drift boat when turbines are running.
The main attraction is the wild trout and extensive sulphur
hatches. Catching the trout isn't exactly easy. Be prepared to
use long leaders and tippets and to make good presentations.
A drag free drift is a must most of the time. You cannot hit these
trout over the head with your fly line and expect them to take
your fly. The catching is especially difficult when they are
feeding in the slow to moderate water. Good realistic imitations
of the natural food can make a big difference. The good part
about it that when you do things right, you are well rewarded.
The thing that makes the South Holston a desirable stream to
fish in the eyes of many anglers are the large hatches of
aquatic insects. The stream has plenty of food of all types for
the trout. The Blue-winged Olive and Sulphur mayfly hatches
can be incredible. It also has some great caddisfly hatches.
This provides dry fly fishing opportunities far better than most
tailwaters. There are plenty of times you have to fish
subsurface using nymphs, streamers, wet flies, soft hackles,
scuds, black fly imitations and other ways, but all in all, dry fly
fishing is using great for a tailwater.
There are actually two different species of mayflies the locals
call Sulphurs. One is the Ephemerella invaria, or what most
anglers call a Pale Evening Dun and the other a true
Sulphur,or Ephemerella dorothea. There's not a great deal of
difference in the two species. The hatches of Sulphurs and
Eastern Pale Evening Duns occur for much of the entire fishing
season. In addition, there are excellent Blue-winged olive
The first of the two mayflies to hatch will be the Eastern Pale
Evening Duns, the larger of the two and the one that is more of
a tan than true sulphur. They are closer to a hook size
16. It is also an easier hatch to fish. The reason is that they
hatch in faster water than the slightly smaller Sulphurs.
Sulphurs hatch in slow to moderate water. Because of that, the
trout get a much better look at your fly and are referred to by
most anglers as picky. It is possible the Sulphurs are
bi-brooded, or hatch twice a year. This happens on the West
Branch of the Delaware River in New York, also a tailwater.
Although these two hatches last a long time, it doesn't mean
that on any given day one of them will be hatching from one
end of the river to the other. The hatch will vary from place to
place along the river depending on a number of factors, a main
one being the amount of water being discharged. You cannot
necessarily expect to go to one point along the river and expect
a hatch to occur. This is another reason a drift boat is a good
option for the South Holston.
There are some huge Blue-winged Olive hatches that occur in
the Winter, early Spring and again in the late Fall. Some of
these are Baetis species but there are other species of
mayflies called blue-winged olives that hatch on the South
Holston. If the dun is larger than a hook size 18, most likely it's
an Eastern Blue-winged Olive, a Drunella species. These are
crawler nymphs as opposed to the Baetis that are swimmers.
Black flies are very plentiful and trout feed on them throughout
the year. However, they are far more important during the
winter months when fewer other insects are hatching. Trout
eat their larvae, pupae and the adult black flies. The river also
supports a good population of scuds, which are another major
source of food for the trout.
As with most any tailwater fishery, midges are also very
important. Often, they are the only flies that the trout are
feeding on and imitations of them are the only trout flies that are
At times, and especially during the brown trout pre-spawn season, large browns can be taken on streamers. The river has
plenty of baitfish and sculpin, and if fished properly, streamers can produce throughout the year. They are most effective when
the water is slightly off-color from rain or during low light situations such as early and late in the day. They also work good when
Caddisflies are very prolific on the South Holston. There's a hatch of Little Black Caddis in April and just as soon as it's about
over the Cinnamon Caddis will start to hatch. These caddisfles exist in several species and will hatch until the end of October.
Near the end of June through July and into August, you will also find hatches of some species of the similar but smaller Little
Sister Caddisflies. There's even a hatch of Spotted Sedges but they are very similar to the Cinnamon Sedges.
In late April, hatches of Green Sedges will start taking place. These caddisflies hatch until the first of July but their larvae,
called Rock Worms, are around all year and flies that imitate them are effective most of the year. In the months of July and
August, you will find hatches of Little Brown Caddisflies. These can be very abundant in certain areas.
Terrestrial insects become important around the middle of June. Imitations of grasshoppers, ants, and beetles will catch trout
until the first week or two in October, or just beyond the time the first frost appears. The Cranefly is another insect that the trout
will feed on. Their larvae are around throughout the year. The adults are also around much of the year, but are more important
during the late summer.
You do have to pay very close attention to the discharge schedule. That's easy to do and the schedule provided is usually very
accurate. There are time you can wade the South Holston River with ease and times you can't. There are times you have a big
advantage using a drift boat. It all depends on the releases. This information is available under the TVA Release Schedule.
The area just below the weir dam usually has plenty of trout but be aware that they are difficult to catch. Although they are
heavily fished, they can be caught if you want to accept the added challenge. Although the water between the weir dam and the
dam looks great, it's even more difficult to catch trout from its smooth flowing water.
Fly fishing the South Holston River can be as good as fly fishing anywhere in the Eastern United States. The river is certainly
worth any avid angler taking the opportunity to fish regardless of where you live.
Angie Marsh fishing the South Holston
Male Eastern Pale Evening Dun
A nice rainbow caught by Chris Tobias
A nice brown caught by Chris Tobias
Chris's Brown and the Spey Rod He Used
Chris Tobias fishing the South Holston
South Holston River